Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 31, 2020) - Why can’t the Start-Up Nation turn the corner on Covid-19?


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Israel is lagging behind many advanced countries in its effort to overcome the second wave of the corona virus. Why is the country “red”?

A. Israel was successful in the spring of this year against the first wave of corona. Unlike some countries like the US and Brazil, Israel’s leadership has taken the virus seriously throughout. Yet in Israel we see unique demographic, political and ethno-religious factors that are holding the country back. And due to political sensitivities, in some regards the leadership is hesitant to call a spade a spade.

Q. But presumably you aren’t.

A. We begin with the leadership itself. Prime Minister Netanyahu is intent on holding onto power and evading prosecution and conviction on multiple corruption charges. In the past two years he has subjected the country to three inconclusive Knesset elections.

Netanyahu is highly intelligent and is as capable as any leader of grasping the scientific and economic dimensions of Covid-19. But in his desperation, he apparently finds it convenient that large sectors of the population are suffering financially and living in fear of infection. In an era when Israel is largely bereft of serious and charismatic political opposition leaders, the public is prey to Netanyahu’s demagogy.

Further, Israel’s prolonged political paralysis has meant that no new budget has been enacted and no new high-level civil service appointments have been made for nearly two years. Economic affairs are being mismanaged. The Finance Ministry’s senior civil servant in charge of budgets, Shaul Meridor, resigned on Sunday. He publicly accused the minister, Yisrael Katz, of falsifying key data and violating “red lines . . . and elementary rules of proper economic and budgetary conduct”. Israel’s financial crisis is deepening and it is liable to lose its preferential international credit rating.

Meridor is one of the “Finance Ministry officials” blamed consistently and conveniently by Netanyahu for delaying allocations of his controversial economic rescue packages. The current ‘emergency corona coalition’ formed by the Likud and Blue White is a study in political tension and dysfunction. The Cabinet’s weekly meeting has been cancelled for four successive weeks now due to unresolved high-level disputes. Last week the lab technicians responsible for testing for corona went on strike.

The entire country now knows that Netanyahu does not intend to honor his rotation agreement with Blue White’s Benny Gantz. He will deploy his ample political cunning when he believes the time is right to precipitate a fourth round of elections, regardless of the status of the pandemic.

Q. Is all of Israel “red” from a corona standpoint?

A. Not at all. Here we encounter more virus culprits that for political reasons are not explicitly named. This Monday, the ten top virus concentrations were in one ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) city, Bnei Brak, two West Bank settlements and seven Arab and Bedouin towns. Of the 1500-2000 new daily cases (a number that has held steady for weeks) and 630 or so current corona sufferers with critical and medium symptoms requiring hospitalization, the vast majority are Arab, Haredi and--a universal problem--elderly residents of assisted living facilities.

That only 883 Israelis had died of corona through last week testifies to the skill and dedication of Israel’s medical professionals rather than to any sort of successfully coordinated national effort. It also reflects a dropping death rate from the virus in its weakened second wave--but in parallel, a higher infection rate.

Currently, the public’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Haredim who insist on spending Rosh HaShana (September 18-20) praying in crowded conditions at the tomb of Rav Nachman of Breslav in Uman in Ukraine, where the event is guaranteed to become a ‘super-spreader’.

Q. Is this where ethno-religious-political constraints enter the picture?

A. Those constraints have been present from the outset. Israel’s initial corona-era minister of health was an ultra-Orthodox political leader who proved incapable of observing even his own regulations prohibiting indoor group prayer and study sessions. He rebuffed offers from the hi-tech community and the (hi-tech) military to apply their expertise and help out.

Those same ultra-Orthodox are still a key Likud-supporting component of Netanyahu’s coalition. It is they who are lobbying for all those flights of Breslavers to Uman. It is they who threaten to bring down the government when confronted with the demand to lock down Haredi towns and neighborhoods during the approaching High Holidays. It is they who left behind a Health Ministry woefully unprepared for dealing with a pandemic.

When Netanyahu mistakenly reopened schools and the economy early in May, telling Israelis to go out and “have fun” and within weeks bringing on Israel’s second wave of corona, he was yielding to sectarian political pressures and ignoring the advice of Health Ministry professionals. Interestingly, Israel’s Arab sector, which shares the corona contagion lead with the Haredim, is not represented in the current coalition and has far less political clout. Why have the Health Ministry and the Israel Police failed to prevent the holding of mass super-spreader weddings in Arab towns and villages? Could it be because Netanyahu’s third successive budgetless coalition is barely functioning? Inevitably, from these Arab population concentrations the virus spreads into Jewish-majority towns. It also spreads to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whose population maintains close commercial and family ties with Arab citizens of Israel.

Q. But didn’t Netanyahu yield to protests around a month ago and appoint a ‘corona czar’ to better coordinate the country’s health and economic response to the virus pandemic?

A. Only recently has Netanyahu stopped assigning corona coordination tasks to non-qualified security appointees (whom he trusts because they owe their jobs to him) like the head of the Mossad and the head of the National Security Council. They failed. They imported unsuitable respirators and recommended problematic lockdowns for which Israel is paying a huge price in unemployment.

Netanyahu agreed a couple of months ago to appoint a qualified corona coordinator, an administrator with a public health background. His first choice for the job, Prof. Gabi Barabash, turned it down at the last minute when he realized that for political reasons he would not be given the authority the job requires. Netanyahu’s second choice, Prof. Roni Gamzu--like Barabash a former Ministry of Health director general and director of a central Tel Aviv hospital--took the job altruistically without bothering to wait for a specific job description. He is still waiting. Here is the ultimate expression of what Gamzu faces. He is independent and original enough to have approached the president of Ukraine directly, asking him to do what Israel’s government cannot or will not do, and prevent tens of thousands of Breslavers from arriving in Uman. Netanyahu did not back Gamzu when the Ukrainian leader phoned.

On Sunday this week, Netanyahu’s corona cabinet finally, after three rejections, approved elements of Gamzu’s ‘traffic signal’ plan to designate towns and cities red, amber, yellow and green in accordance with their corona status. Yet political pressures kept Gamzu from preventing a renewal of school sessions in red towns, thereby virtually guaranteeing that those schools too become super-spreaders. Only on September 1 will the Israel Defense Forces finally be ready to take over rapid epidemiological research and tracking of the chain of infection nationally--more than half a year into Israel’s corona era.

Q. Isn’t it time for mass protest?

A. In recent months there has arisen a popular movement led by non-profit organizations with names like “Black Flags” and “Crime Minister”. They organize mass Saturday evening demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residences in Jerusalem and Caesaria. The demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands and have spread to street corners and bridges over highways. The number of demonstrators is increasing week by week and includes Likudniks and Orthodox Jews. Cars on the roads honk their support.

The demonstrators (full disclosure: I’m one of them) are calling on Netanyahu to resign. Their campaign is reminiscent of demonstrations that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 First Lebanon War. Back then, far smaller numbers of demonstrators helped hasten the resignations of PM Golda Meir and PM Menachem Begin, whom the public held responsible for Israel’s losses in those tragic conflicts.

Q. Meir and Begin were keenly aware and respectful of the demonstrators. And Netanyahu?

A. He is well aware, but not respectful. Unlike his predecessors he publicly belittles the demonstrators and eggs on the Israel Police to treat them brutally. This reflects one key difference between then and now: Golda Meir had a conscience; so did Menachem Begin.

Just as in the US Covid-19 should be labeled ‘Trump’s virus’, so in Israel it should be ‘Bibi’s virus’. This would serve to acknowledge the prime minister’s lack of political courage, desperate suppression of the rule of law, and the paralysis and paranoia he has introduced into the system.

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